Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
December 19, 2013
There was a time when disruptive students were sent to see the principal. Today in some school districts, the disruptive student is handcuffed and ushered off to court. The school-to-prison pipeline is overflowing with students.
Melodee Hanes, of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, describes the school-to-prison pipeline as “the pervasive use of court referrals as a means of discipling kids in school."
According to the Washington Post, more than 3 million students each year are suspended or expelled from school across the United States. Federal data, though limited, show that more than 240,000 students were referred to law enforcement.
The school-to-prison pipeline is being fueled by “zero-tolerance” policies that accelerate the involvement of the criminal justice system in routine school disciplinary practices. The involvement of law enforcement in traditional matters of school discipline has soared as school districts across the country expanded the use of armed police officers in schools.
The results, at times, have been ridiculous. Recently, the parents of a 10-year-old Pennsylvania boy, who was suspended after pretending to shoot an imaginary bow and arrow, are mulling legal action against the school district to erase the incident from his school record. The fifth-grader was disciplined under the school district’s weapons policy.
Last year, federal civil rights lawyers filed suit against a Meridian County School District in Mississippi for operating what the government described as a school-to-prison pipeline in which students were denied basic constitutional rights, sent to court and incarcerated for minor school infractions, reported CNN.
Children were handcuffed and arrested in school; often detained without a hearing for 48 hours; made admissions without being advised of their rights; and were not provided with legal counsel for hearings.
The problem goes beyond Mississippi. Wansley Walters, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year, "The vast majority of children being arrested in schools are not committing criminal acts."
Sixty-seven percent of the arrests last year in Florida were for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct — a catch-all that has been used when children are unruly or disruptive. Fewer than 5 percent of students faced weapons charges.
Some Florida school districts are beginning to question the efficacy of zero-tolerance policies. Under a new program adopted by the Broward County School District, non-violent misdemeanors — even those that involve alcohol, marijuana or drug paraphernalia — will now be handled by the schools instead of the police.
Broward County is far from the only school district re-evaluating its zero-tolerance policies. According to National Public Radio, officials in Clayton County, Ga., Wichita, Kan., Columbus, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala., are just a few of the school districts reviewing zero-tolerance policies.
Policymakers have also taken notice. Last December, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights conducted the first ever hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline.
“For many young people schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system,” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement before the committee.
“[T]his school-to-prison pipeline has moved scores of young people from classrooms to courtrooms.”
Michael Nash, the presiding judge of juvenile court in Los Angeles and the immediate past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, told the New York Times, “You have to differentiate the security issue and the discipline issue … once the kids get involved in the court system, it’s a slippery slope downhill.”
Unfortunately, more and more young people are sliding down that slippery slope, and the consequences are dire for the student and costly for society as well.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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